Armed Clashes in Papun District: An end to peaceful negotiation?

Photo Credit: KNU KNLA

When clashes broke out between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), and the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw)  from March 4 to 8  in  Papun (Mudraw) Township, Karen State, forcing some 2000 Karen villagers to flee, due to the Tatmadaw’s road building in the area, many wonder if this will be the end of peace negotiation process that started out in 2011 initiated by the then ruling Thein Sein regime.

There has never been a serious firefight between the KNLA and Tatmadaw, since the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) by both parties on October 15, 2015. But the recent March armed engagements continued until the mid-April occurring at least once or twice a day until they died down, reportedly for the Tatmadaw to build bunkers, according to Colonel Saw Kler Doh from the KNLA’s Brigade 5.

“The situation eased in mid-April, with some villagers even going back to their homes to feed their animals such as chickens and pigs. However, it did not last long, and clashes have happened every day in May and the villagers have been forced to flee into the jungle again,” Padoh Saw Tar Doh Moo, general secretary of the KNU recently told The Irrawaddy.

Since April 30, more bulldozers have arrived in the area to continue rebuilding an old road while six more Tatmadaw units have been deployed in crop-growing areas of local villagers, forcing the villagers to abandon their homes.

Padoh Saw Tar Doh Moo, said that “as there is a space for discussion regarding any disputes, the Tatmadaw’s military expansion should not be happening.”

KNU and KNLA statements

The KNU and KNLA statements of May 10 highlighted the fact that the military tension and ensuing clashes between the Karen troops and the Tatmadaw was due to the latter’s breaching of the NCA by reinforcing its troops in KNU controlled areas.

The KNU statement emphasized its effort to end the conflict as follows: “Pursuant to the decision of Joint Monitoring Committee – Union Level (JMC-U), a meeting was to be held between our own military leaders, Military Affairs Negotiation Team (MANT), and Tatmadaw leaders on the 29-30 March 2018. The intent was to discuss the incidents that had taken place as a result of the Tatmadaw increasing their forces and sending in more troops, in connection with road construction in Kaybu and Lermuplaw zones, Brigade-5, Mudraw (Papun) District and others military related issues, starting from early March. However, the Tatmadaw postponed the meeting stating that the KNLA Brigade-5 commander was not included.”

The statement described: “Starting from the 30 April 2018, the Tatmadaw has expanded their force by bringing in more troops. The Tatmadaw conducts patrols over rice fields, drainage, farms, and places of livelihood of the local populations. In addition, they have brought in more heavy plant machinery, without any consultation, and one-lopsidedly decided to carry out these activities.”

It also cautioned: “We call upon the Tatmadaw to cease such activities including the increased presence of troops and road construction, as these activities are destroying trust.”

And while urging to de-escalate the military tension by meeting each other as soon as possible and its commitment to peaceful resolution, the statement made it clear: “ If the Tarmacadam continues with their activities, they will be held solely responsible for the current situation.”

The KNLA statement on the other hand emphasized its cooperation with the KNU and condemned the breaching of peace agreement terms by the Tatmadaw, stating: “Since the date of signing of the NCA, though we the KNLA, have abided by the terms of the agreement to the best of our ability, it is found that the government’s Tatmadaw (army) has not abided by the agreement terms, and it has regularly violated the agreement.”

KNLA’s statement sum up the situation as: “According to the incidents taking place currently in Mudraw District, starting from 2- 3-2018, members of the Tatmadaw have been preparing to begin building road forcibly with the support of massive military force, bringing with them earth moving machines, in the Brigade-5 Area of Mudraw District, without our permission. Due to those events, the local populations have become alarmed and fled to hide in the forests.”

The statement pointed out the Tatmadaw leaders’ disregard of the call from the Karen leaders for the  suspension of road building and withdrawal of their forces but instead it continued with the military reinforcement.

The statement said: “(T)he events taking place nowadays in Brigade-5 Area in Mudraw District, we cannot fail to see that they are not the ordinary work of building road but movements to annihilate us totally for domination of the area,” warning that “if the government Tatmadaw continues to implement its program and reinforce its strength instead of reducing it, armed conflict will inevitably recur.”

In closing the statement wrote: (W)e, the KNLA, will no longer remain silent, and for the security of our nationals and for the protection of our organization, we inevitably have to defend and issue this position statement for the information of the entire people, at home and abroad.

Tatmadaw’s rebuttal

The Tatmadaw rebutted the KNU accusation in its announcement saying that its intention was to upgrade the 15 miles long old road from the village of  Kay Bu to Ler Mu Plaw for the benefit of the local people and as well make the administrative undertaking easier, which it has informed the KNLA 11 times and started the road construction on May 4.

It said the misunderstood and worried KNLA attacked the Tatmadaw 53 times, which killed four of its soldiers and injured 29. Besides, 20 demining undertakings uncovered 42 landmines; and 13 stepping on landmines have occurred. Even then, it has not retaliated but only taken security measures for the roadwork and machinery, according to the Tatmadaw’s statement.

JMC -U a way out?

Meanwhile, Dr Shwe Khar spokesman for the JMC-U, following the meeting on May 15, said that the Tatmadaw will withdraw its troops as soon as the road building in Papun (Mudraw) is finished.

“When the road building is finished, all troops, except the formerly stationed troops will be withdrawn. In extreme situation, there were discussion on only to allow one driver who would drive the machine (bulldozer), without the Tatmadaw troops getting involved,” explained Dr Shwe Khar.

Accordingly, a meeting between the KNU and the Tatmadaw is scheduled to take place during the third week of May.

Outlook

Given the precarious confrontation situation, with the accusation that the Tatmadaw having a more ambitious scheme of wanting to annihilate the KNU and totally dominate the area and the Tatmadaw insisting to go ahead with the said road construction, reportedly to benefit the local population and aiding the administrative undertaking easier, it seems a compromise has to be worked out to rebuild trust.

While the Tatmadaw insisted that it has informed the KNLA of the road building 11 times, the latter pointed out that it is just an act of giving information and not securing an agreement from the KNLA and KNU. Besides, there were also argument that the Tatmadaw’s development plan needed to have the endorsement of the population and not forcefully implementing it against their desire.

As such, the solution to this conflict would have to be within the mold of NCA for failing this would mean that the NCA-based peace process could no longer be applicable or relevant.